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Author: Mark W. Theisen
2009 Indy 500 pre-race, Photo by Burzy
2009 Indy 500 pre-race, Photo by Burzy
May 16th 2011 - By:  Mark W. Theisen

     WEST BEND, WI March 16, 2011:   This past Monday and Tuesday saw the first real sign of the 2011 INDY CAR season with the completion an open test session for all cars in the series that wanted to attend held at the Barber Motorsports Park outside Birmingham, Alabama, the site of the second race in the 2011 season on April 11th.
     24 cars participated in the two day session that actually started on Sunday March 13th with a media day and photo session for all the drivers as public relations images were taken for use throughout the coming season.
     Barber Motorsports Park is a 2.38 mile 17 turn road course that provides significant challenges for a driver and a perfect place for them to re-hone their driving skills in preparation for the 17 race schedule that will begin at St. Petersburg next Sunday, March 27th.
     Will Power, of the powerhouse Penske Racing Team, picked up right where he left off last season dominating the two day session being fastest on Monday with a top lap of 1 minute, 11.9636 seconds or a speed of 115.058 miles-per-hour.  He backed that up on Tuesday with a slightly slower time of 1 minute, 12.5056 seconds but still good enough to sit atop the speed charts.
     Power was the car to beat on the road and street courses last year and with this effort he solidified his ranking.  His experience on these types of races courses and his smoothness in the car makes it look easy compared to the rest of the field. 
     Scott Dixon of Target-Chip Ganassi was second on Monday with a time of 1 minute, 12.5538 seconds followed by Justin Wilson of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Helio Castroneves of Penske and rookie James Hinchcliffe of Newman-Haas Racing.
     Power’s third teammate at Penske, Ryan Briscoe moved into second on Tuesday with Dixon third, Castroneves fourth, and Wilson fifth.
     Defending series champion Dario Franchitti was 12th on both days content to work on race set ups and pit stop practice versus actual top end speed.
     The speed of Penske and Ganassi was expected, what was a surprise was the strong showing by Wilson and Hinchcliffe as they lapped the course in the same company as the cars from the stronger teams.
     It was hoped that the full line-up of drivers for the coming season would have been confirmed by this test but many unanswered questions remain for Tony Kaanan, Paul Tracy and Dan Wheldon with the series set to start in 10 days.  At the time of my last writing Kaanan was all but set but sponsors fell by the wayside and he is still looking to put some sort of deal together to at least race in some of the events this year.
     Sam Schmidt Racing, the perennial lead team in the Indy Lights series, made its move to the INDY CAR series with the purchase of the assets of the FAZZT Team late in February.  Alex Tagliani was the driver and part owner of FAZZT and he came to Sam Schmidt as the driver and was 10th at the end of both days of practice.  Schmidt is now poised to be a significant player in both series this year and in the yeas to come.
     Sebastian Saavedra, after an impressive drive for Conquest Racing at the series ending race last year was announced as one of their drivers for the coming season thus answering one of the remaining questions about open seasons for this year.  Seats remain open at KV Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold, Conquest and Dale Coyne so anything is still possible but the time is getting short.
     Firestone Tire and Rubber made news twice early in March with their announcement on March 4th that 2011 would be their final year as tire supplier to both the INDY CAR series and the Indy Lights.  This announcement, while not unexpected still took the series by shock, so much show that the owners petitioned Randy Bernard, series president to try and convince Firestone otherwise.
     Team owners also lobbied hard as 2012 is set to debut the new chassis and engine packages and to have a new tire as well would have very difficult to handle.
     Bernard was able to get a meeting with Firestone and iron out all differences that were on the table and Firestone announced on March 10th that they were back in the series through 2013.  With that announcement the car owners and drivers breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Through all the years on the current INDY Car configuration Firestone was the rock with no failures and performance issues, they could be counted on.  In the end car owners will have to pay more for tires but the initial decision to drop was not to get an increase in revenue but that Firestone’s parent company, Bridgestone, had decided to market their wares in a different manner and will still do so but remain with the series through the ironing out of the new chassis and engine packages.
     Bernard also created a lot of controversy with the announcement of a cap of 26 cars at each INDY CAR race, the implementation of the “lucky dog”, and side by side restarts.  The side-by-side restarts are a done deal, car owners wanted the “lucky dog” or the first car one lap down on a restart getting back on the lead lap but the fans have been dead set against it and I look for a final decision yet this week.
     The 26 car field cap is difficult for this writer to understand.  For one, right now, they don’t have 26 and if they do why send them home.  Sponsors are hard to find in INDY CAR right now so let those that are competitive race.  The final decision on this is still pending.

     At 16th & Georgetown Road in Indianapolis things continue to gear up for the 500!

     This coming Sunday March 20th, the largest collection of Indianapolis 500 winning cars to ever be displayed at one time will debut at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum.
     67 will be on display through June 1st and include the 31 cars that are owned by the Speedway and 36 from private collections including all four of each driven by the four time winners of the 500:  A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears.  This is truly remarkable accomplishment to place all these cars side-by-side in one building and well worth a visit when in town for the race.  A decision is still coming in regards to having some or all of the cars on the track at some point during May at the track.
     Saturday May 14th, the opening day for activities at the track for the month of May will feature an auto show, titled “Celebration of Automobiles”.  It will be a Concours event ala the famed Pebble Beach Concours and will feature outstanding cars from the 24 manufacturers that competed in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.  1963 500 winner Parnelli Jones will be the chief judge of the event that will feature more that 250 classic cars.
     On Pole day, May 21st, the 24 living pole winners of the race have been invited to return to the Speedway to be part of the day’s festivities.  Continuing with the month long Celebration of Automobiles, the largest collection of vintage Pace Cars, as many as 200, will be on display throughout the weekend as well and local Indianapolis car clubs having been invited to display there classics, muscle cars, etc., as well.
     The must day to attend, in addition to race day – of course, is Saturday May 28th, the day before the 500.
     The day will start off with the driver’s meeting which is open to the fans and then following the meeting will be what has been termed as the “World’s Largest Autograph Session”. 
     Picture this:  732 drivers have started the Indianapolis 500, 269 survive as of this date and all 269 have been invited back for this event.  Fans will be given unprecedented access to the legends of the Brickyard and will not only have a chance to get autographs from this year’s starting field but from any of the 269.  A chance to meet your hero, this has all the makings of one very special day!
     A full scale Indy 500 memorabilia show will also be in the infield as well as a display of vintage sprint and midget cars driven the greatest names of Indy lore:  Foyt, Unser, Rutherford, Andretti and more.
     This year at Indy will be special, plan to be there and make sure to get to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway website and participate in their “Greatest 33” program and vote for your all time favorites.  I will publish my list to you April 30th, the last day for you to submit your entries to the Speedway.
     That’s it for now.  May is fast approaching!